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'The Education of Eli'? He got his share of A's and stayed pretty much the same person

Giants' Eli Manning calling signals on the first

Giants' Eli Manning calling signals on the first play of his career on Sunday November 21, 2004 against the Atlanta Falcons. Credit: NEWSDAY/PAUL J. BERESWILL

Imagine someone writing an eight-part series on every aspect of your life when you were 23, then looking back  more than 15 years later to see how things had turned out.

Odds are, there would have been more than a few unexpected twists along the way, plus amusingly off-target assumptions and predictions from way back when.

Unless you are Eli Manning, that is.

In 2004, Newsday wrote an eight-part series about his rookie season, dubbed “The Education of Eli,” and as he prepares to bid farewell on Friday, a look back at that series reveals . . . pretty much the same guy we know in 2020.

Such is the Tao of Eli, seemingly the world’s most unflappable star, on and off the field.

Still, 2004 was a long time ago, before YouTube or Twitter or Instagram or iPhones, before Facebook expanded beyond college campuses.

Take this description from Manning about his after-work regimen that summer, when he was single and living in an apartment — briefly with his mother — about 10 minutes from Giants Stadium:

“I’m a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan,” he said. “I watch that, watch ‘SportsCenter’ and kind of see what’s happening. I’m not big into the Internet, but I’ve tried to get a little more into that. Then I’ll study and watch my film.

“Not a whole lot of excitement and glamour right now.”

Eli did not exactly light it up socially in his time with the Giants, but there was that time later in his rookie year that he was caught on camera with actress Lindsay Lohan at a Manhattan Club. I asked if he gave her his phone number, as had been reported.

"I talked to her for a second and the next day I have that in the paper," he said. "I didn't worry about it, but you have to watch out. In that case it wasn't anything bad, but you have to watch where you are and what you are doing. I didn't give her my number."

He did mention a girlfriend, who still was a student at the University of Mississippi. That would be his future wife, Abby, mother to his four children. So that has been a change in his life since 2004.

But two themes that ran through the series never changed: The first is the influence of his immediate family — father Archie, mother Olivia, brothers Cooper and Peyton. The second is his famously, unshakably laid-back personality.

About the former, the only line of questioning Eli admitted got a little old was people wondering what advice he got on his regular calls with Peyton, then already a star with the Colts.

“Other people see Peyton and think of him as a football player,” Eli said. “I think of him as my brother.”

In camp, Eli said the advice he got from Peyton was to bring his own Sharpie to sign autographs, which speeds up the process. “I’m talking about cover-2 [defense] and he tells me to bring a pen,” Eli said.

About the latter, his high school coach, Frank Gendusa, said, “We used to call Eli ‘E,’ then just ‘Easy.’ ”

Said Archie, “I’m not sure what kind of disposition a person needs to have to handle this best. But he is a pretty level guy.”

Many people remember Manning’s performance against the Ravens in the regular season, in which he recorded a 0.0 passer rating.

But that spring he had bombed in his first minicamp practice, about which he said in August, “I’d be eating lunch and they had TVs on and I could kind of see what they said; I just put my head down and ate my food and everybody else listened.”

Then came a preseason game against the Jets in which he was 4-for-14 for 20 yards, with two interceptions and a 0.0 rating. Manning seemed unaffected.

“He made it this far,” tackle Luke Petitgout said. “He’s not going to all of a sudden start crying in the huddle.”

Everyone could see his talent. Receiver Ike Hilliard said Manning’s arm was as strong as that of his predecessor, Kerry Collins, but Hilliard added, “It’s an easier catch, I guess because of anticipation or I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s kind of weird.”

Our series chronicled in great X's-and-O's detail the knowledge Manning picked up as he went along, with coach Tom Coughlin, coordinator Kevin Gilbride and quarterback Kurt Warner all keeping him nearby.

Only once did he hint at a sliver of frustration, saying, “I am learning, but obviously I think you can probably learn better by playing.”

Warner was 4-1 at the time, and eventually 5-4, while a debate raged about whether Eli could benefit from playing as a rookie, as Peyton had.

“I didn’t have a Kurt Warner,” Peyton said. “They told me I was the guy from the day I was drafted. They didn’t care if I we won one game or 10. I was the guy. I had to face the bullets.”

Manning was named the starter for the Giants’ 10th game. He lost his first six, then beat the Cowboys, 28-24, in the season finale. He checked out of a pass play and handed off to Tiki Barber for a 3-yard scoring run with 11 seconds left.

He considered the praise he got for that decision a bit much. “Yeah, like it was some type of brain surgery, just making an audible or a check to a run play,” he said three days later in the final installment of the series. “It wasn't that difficult a read or decision.”

Manning spoke of his plans to low-key his marketing portfolio at least until 2005, and he explained an approach to media relations that served him well. No sports star of his era, even Derek Jeter, handled New York media better.

“It’s part of the job,” he said. “They want to ask you questions, you answer to the best of your ability, try to be honest, and when it’s over, you forget about it.”

By mid-September, I was writing: “He has amazed almost everyone with his ability to handle facts of life such as fans, reporters, marketing and socializing in the public eye, basics that often challenge rookie stars.”

Said vice president of communications Pat Hanlon, “He came ready-made.”

Two other things that turned out to ring true a decade-and-a-half after that early coverage package, eerily so:

On May 2, 2004, I referenced the birth several days earlier of Cooper’s son, Arch, and wrote this, looking ahead to the first overall pick in the 2027 NFL Draft:

“The good news for that unknown team — oh, heck, let’s take a guess: Los Angeles Chargers, you’re up! — is that it now has plenty of notice before handing in its card to commissioner Jeremy Shockey.”

Arch now is a freshman quarterback at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans, Eli’s alma mater, on schedule to graduate college in 2027 — and his grandfather told the Indianapolis Star that he is ahead of Peyton and Eli at this stage.

The Chargers did in fact move to Los Angeles, in 2017.

(As for the part about Shockey becoming commissioner — hey, you never know!)

And then there was the last question and answer in our last interview, two days after the milestone victory over the Cowboys:

Q: “It’s April 2020. You've announced you will retire after the season, so the Giants use their first-round pick on a quarterback out of Ole Miss. What would your advice to him be?”

A: “It's all about how hard you're going to work, how much you want it. Don't worry about what's written, what people say on TV. Listen to your coaches and they'll let you know if you played well or didn't.

“Just try to have fun with it. Just play football. And learn.”

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